La Junta City Park statue

A Junction of Poverty and Opportunity

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It’s late February and I’m 174 miles southeast of Denver in La Junta (“the Junction”), Colorado. It’s a city named after its origin as the junction between the Santa Fe Trail and a pioneer road leading to Pueblo. And nearly 140 years since the city’s founding, we find ourselves at a new junction today: The intersection of the disproportionate number of southern Coloradans living in poverty and elevating the solutions to build a healthier tomorrow for a place defined by its community resilience.

I found myself in La Junta for the Foundation’s Symposium Unplugged event focused on addressing poverty. Elevating the voices of all Coloradans is core to our work at the Foundation, and that’s exactly what events like this intend to do. The event, Disrupting Poverty, featured many voices of southeast Colorado’s economic and social service sectors, local leaders and a keynote by renowned author and community activist, Michael Patrick MacDonald.

This is what we learned.

To ensure southeast Colorado can become a healthier place for those who call it home, we must work collectively with communities to address poverty—and the historic inequities it exacerbates—head on.

Southern and southeast Colorado face the highest level of economic distress according to Bell Policy Center’s Guide to Economic Mobility in Colorado. Each of the top five counties experiencing the most severe economic barriers fall within this portion of the state, with three counties – Bent, Crowley and Otero – sharing a tri-county region immediately east of Pueblo. Southeast Colorado is also experiencing the most pronounced outmigration pattern in the state. Baca, Bent, Crowley, Las Animas, Otero and Prowers counties each have net migration losses ranging from 3 to 10 percent.

During Unplugged, Bell Policy Center’s Cate Blackford shared that economic mobility challenges are systemic and multi-faceted. Shrinking public investment, technological advancement impacting job markets, demographic patterns and wage stagnation have presented many challenges for folks in the area.

The outlook for the next generation of southeast Coloradans places urgency on creating positive economic development and eliminating the opportunity divide. There is no place in Colorado with a higher concentration of youth poverty than the south and southeastern portions of our state, with each of the top five most impoverished counties and a 14-county stretch from Saguache east to Prowers and Baca counties all experiencing youth poverty rates in excess of 25 percent.

We also know that disparities exist for Coloradans on the basis of race. People of color are far more likely to experience poverty in southeast Colorado when compared to their white peers. According to 2018 data from the Colorado Health Institute, in Otero County alone, young people (18 and under) from the LatinX community are nearly twice as likely to live in poverty, 42 percent versus 22 percent for their white neighbors. And Crowley County has the second highest childhood poverty rate in the state, with 40 percent of youth experiencing poverty. For Crowley’s LatinX community—the reality is even more stark—with 60 percent of LatinX youth born into poverty.

To ensure southeast Colorado can become a healthier place for those who call it home, we must work collectively with communities to address poverty—and the historic inequities it exacerbates—head on.

Suzanne Anarde, a long-time southern Colorado resident and vice president of the national community development finance institution, Rural LISC, discussed how highlighting community investments throughout the United States can be catalytic in rural communities in comparison to major population centers. Suzanne noted that governments and philanthropic institutions cannot talk about health without elevating matters of economic resiliency. To enhance financial self-sufficiency, communities must look closely at wage gaps, workforce development and small business innovation to foster a robust entrepreneurial ecosystem.

La Junta’s Director of Economic Development, Cynthia Nieb, is doing this exactly. In partnership with community leaders, Cynthia is exploring non-traditional economic development, using the popularity of public spaces and parks to build a thriving and economically resilient community. Cynthia and city administration partners have leveraged community-will to rehabilitate the city’s historic downtown with the ultimate goal of bringing every block in the city to life. On any given day, you will find community members out in the city’s green spaces, and new philanthropic and governmental investments in mixed-use business development and housing are underway. One such example includes an innovative co-working space, the CORE Center, located in La Junta’s downtown district.

These unique approaches to non-traditional economic advancement display rural Colorado’s driving force beyond being defined by data. And it begins with authenticity and capturing the stories of the people who live here.

In the words of Cassie Rogers Wykoff, Region 6 health connector based out of the Otero County Health Department: “Any of us can look at the data. However, listening to each of the stories of people who call southeast Colorado home is most meaningful to my work.” During a morning panel conversation on the intersection of poverty and health, she reiterated that program innovations and stronger collaborations customized to meet the complex needs of rural communities can create lasting change.

And, it can’t be the same 10 voices at community meetings or when decisions are being made that impact southeast Coloradans. System-wide, communities must become more informed by the people most impacted by poverty, ensuring new voices are at the table to achieve health equity.

Speaking from personal experience, we heard from Elia Trujillo who moved the audience by sharing her experience with childhood hunger and homelessness, bravely telling the tale of her and her siblings sucking on pebbles to curb the cravings of hunger. Elia relentlessly expressed that people in her community still suffer from hunger, and we must create a better world for our young people. Elia has channeled her hardships into her life’s work; now serving as language coordinator at Prowers Medical Center. She approaches her work of breaking down language and cultural barriers by welcoming each patient she sees with humility and compassion.

For youth who share similar experiences as the young Elia, leaders in southeast Colorado are charged with developing programs that help to ensure a better world for young people in need of hope and opportunity.

By exploring the 12 Key Assets Commonwealth comprised of each community’s inherent strengths, Ogallala Commons engages young people by growing an appreciation for their community’s existing assets. The organization strives to leverage connection, networking and skill-building to create brighter opportunities for youth to stay local. Ultimately, changing the rural narrative and creating a landscape where children growing up can thrive has a measurable impact on disrupting the prevailing sentiment of rural Colorado lacking economic vitality.

As the day ended and I traveled home, I admired the shifting landscape from open, rolling meadows in rural Colorado to the flash and flicker of city lights, and I reflected on what I learned.

I left reaffirmed in the notion that we can best accomplish our work through listening and learning from community and the voices within. There is no doubt that communities can harness the energy and find solutions to many of their existing health and economic challenges. By elevating the voices of those left in the shadows and bringing leaders together to create change, we can work together on building opportunities to thrive throughout southeast Colorado.

From the innovative solutions already underway, I know there is hope to elevate more ideas and a shared vision for a future that dismantles poverty.

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